Harm Reduction Vending Machines Are Coming to Ottawa

By McCarton Ackerman 01/20/17

The vending machines may offer new crack pipes and sterile needles.

Harm reduction vending machine
Harm reduction vending machine in Vancouver that sells $0.25 crack pipes. Photo via YouTube

Vending machines aren’t just for candy and soda. Some of these devices in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa will soon start carrying harm reduction equipment.

The Ottawa Citizen reported that authorities will introduce these vending machines in five locations throughout the city, providing crucial services for drug users who need clean needles after normal business hours. Although the specific materials in the harm reduction vending machines haven’t been confirmed, it’s almost a guarantee that crack pipes and clean, sterile needles will be included.

Vera Etches, Ottawa's deputy medical officer of health, said it was still unclear how much the machines would cost and that suppliers are still being identified. However, she confirmed the province would pick up the tab and that city dollars would not be used. Access to the machines would also likely be restricted, with only those receiving a card or token from an existing social service program able to utilize them.

For now, the initiative will run as a pilot project. Although prospective vendors have been told the machines should be delivered by the end of February, Etches said that date is not set in stone. “We can’t rush things,” she said. “These kinds of initiatives are making sure the community is involved.”

A survey from last summer that included 2,263 Ottawa residents found 62% believed the harm reduction dispensing machines would be “beneficial” to the city, while 51% had “no concern” about the units.

Similar initiatives have been introduced both in Canada and globally. The Canadian city of Vancouver installed vending machines with crack pipes in 2014 as part of its harm reduction program. Needle-dispensing machines are also available in New Zealand, Australia and some European cities.

Ottawa residents have raised some concerns about the new initiative, though. Some worry that naloxone will not be available in the machines, but Etches said that was an intentional choice, because naloxone would have to go hand in hand with proper overdose response training.

Others have noted that the machines will provide a limited amount of information for drug users compared to what they would receive at the service clinic, but Etches clarified that they’re intended to be a supplement and not a replacement for these facilities.

A staff report released last June to Ottawa’s public health board showed there are up to 5,000 intravenous drug users throughout the city. About 13.9% had admitted taking drugs with a previously used needle.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.